Personal Computing On An Amiga In 2021

Tales From The Dork Web #30

Solène created a week-long personal computing challenge around old computers. I chose to use an Amiga for the week. In this issue I write about my experience, and what modern computing lost when Commodore died. I also want to show some of the things you can do with an Amiga or even an emulator if you'd like to try.

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As I keep telling my partner, Amigas aren’t an addiction, they’re just a very expensive hobby.

This issue’s music comes from H0ffman and The Black Lotus’ Eon demo. Press play and read on, although you really should watch the demo at some point. It's amazing how they crammed so much into two floppy disks. It's even more amazing how this runs on an OCS A500 with 1Mb of RAM. Eon rinses every spare scanline to deliver high art on a machine using chips from the green screen text era. TBL wrote a blog post series explaining how it was done.

Legends Never Die

Friends, acquaintances and random people often ask me, “What is the greatest computer range of all time and why is it the Commodore Amiga?”. Of course I don’t wait for them to ask me. I just shout out reasons why the Amiga is the best from across the street. Some might say Amiga owners are the original computing fan-boys. I think that’d be insulting to Commodore 64 owners. Still, there’s something about the Amiga that resonates with me in ways modern computing doesn’t.

Although Commodore died in 1994 the Amiga itself became a zombie platform for a while. For the longest time the Amiga was going to come back with a vengeance any day now, until it didn’t. It kind of turned into a joke until one day the joke was forgotten. This is mostly down to long-running, pointless and unhelpful legal disputes.

But every day thousands of people still use Amigas to create, code and play. I’m just one of them. For a dead platform with a dead OS there’s a remarkable amount activity. New hardware, software, games and Operating Systems are coming out all the time.

Hyperion released Amiga OS 3.2 a couple of months ago. My copy arrived at the same time as Solène’s challenge. Amiga OS 3.2 is the latest version of the official Amiga Operating System, hot on the heels of 2019’s Amiga OS 3.1.4.1. Amiga OS 3.2 is the 3rd major OS release for the Amiga this year after NetBSD 9.2 and Debian Linux.

Amiga users realised that Cloanto, A-EON and Hyperion’s legal fighting won’t bring the Amiga back. They built their own toys and the Amiga’s future has never been brighter.

WinUAE, Amiga Forever, Amiberry and Pimiga provide easy ways to use Amiga software. New systems like the FPGA-based MiSTer and the Vampire Standalone provide excellent compatibility. eBay prices can be eyewatering but upgrades are cheaper and better than ever before. The Pistorm is an all-in-one accelerator, RAM, storage and graphics card for low-end Amigas. The upcoming Buffee accelerator promises equivalent 68040 CPU speeds of up to 400Mhz and a Gigabyte of RAM.

Trying Amiga OS 3.2

In hindsight, installing a new OS from scratch wasn’t the best starting point for Solène’s challenge. I spent more time installing and configuring than using my Amiga 4000. It has a Motorola 68060 CPU running at 55Mhz, 352Gb of storage, full 1080P HD graphics, 16-bit sound, Ethernet and USB 2.0. For the challenge I took the RAM down from 658Mb to 386Mb. Everything I've done here would be doable on an Amiga 500 with a Pistorm, or TerribleFire board and a Plipbox.

The biggest lie this machine tells you is that it’s a modern computer. It’s nearly 30 years old and I have more powerful kitchen appliances. Most of the time you wouldn’t notice the age. The difference between my 1992 Amiga 4000 and 1982 ZX Spectrum is far greater than between my Amiga 4000 and a modern PC on the same desk.

Amigabill runs through 13 new Amiga OS 3.2 features he likes. Most are quality-of-life improvements that already existed with third-party tools in some form. Coming from Amiga OS 3.9, by far the biggest difference is speed. Amiga OS 3.2 flies thanks to it’s 3.1 heritage. Amiga OS 3.9 built on Amiga OS 3.5, and both are bloaty (by Amiga standards). At the time they were stepping stones to a PPC-powered future. Unfortunately that future never fully arrived.

The install had minor problems but I got there in the end. I installed BestClassicWB as I prefer OS 3.9’s look. I added speech and Fat95 handlers, Eastern to generate icon thumbnails and WarpDT WebP and PSD Datatypes. Datagubbe saved me the trouble of detailing more of the little things that made the Amiga great. As Icons, Handlers and Datatypes are some of the greatest things we lost from Amiga OS, I’ll break them down here.

Icons and .info

Amiga OS elegantly handles file metadata through .info files. These manage permissions and associations (called default tools). They provide something like localised environment variables called Tool types. Folders, files and even devices can have .info files, as shown in the screenshot above. In Amiga OS 3.2 Default icons are stored in ENVARC:Sys. These provide default settings for files lacking icons.

Icons are separate to the files they're associated with. As such the Amiga lacks a native thumbnail concept. 3rd-party tools like Eastern generate thumbnail icons for files that lack them.

Devices, Handlers and Assigns

Amiga OS uses a pluggable filesystem model. To add support for a new filesystem, you install a handler and create a mountlist. The handler describes the filesystem to Amiga OS. A mountlist is a text file describing a physical device (e.g. CD0 for a CD) that specifies a handler.

This lets an expanded 1985-era Amiga 1000 use modern filesystems like FAT32 and NTFS. For example, I read DVDs using AllegroCDFS. DVDs only came into existence two years after Commodore’s bankruptcy.

Amiga devices have both physical and logical names. The physical name usually refers to a device e.g. DF0: for the first physical drive, DF1: for second etc. Disk content would neither know nor care which drive it was in, so a logical volume name (e.g. NComm:) is used.

Logical volume names can be assigned to folders. Multiple folders can be assigned to the same logical volume such as LIBS: in the screenshot above. This functions like a path. The NComm tool doesn’t care where it lives, it just looks for NComm: and finds what it needs.

Two devices not commonly used in many modern systems are RAM: and RAD:. Imagine a mega-fast temporary disk drive that doubles whenever you kill Slack. That’s RAM: which is great for working with file archives. RAD: is a fixed-size bootable RAM disk that survives soft reboots. Equivalents exist for most modern Operating Systems. They’re worth trying out. You don’t really know how useful they are till you lose them.

Datatypes

Some of the best Amiga software came out over 30 years ago, long before modern file formats came out. While the Amiga introduced many standards, the native formats aren’t as common today. Datatypes bring modern formats to old Amigas.

Multiview accessing (clockwise from top left) a text (m3u) file, a jpeg picture, an AmigaGuide cheat collection, a GIF while playing w96.aif, an AIFF audio file. Like OSX Preview but from 1992.

Like filesystem handlers, Datatypes describe a file format and tell the OS how to handle it. Any datatype-aware program can use any file format as long as a relevant datatype is present. Commodore introduced Multiview in Workbench 3.0. This is a bit like Mac OS Preview, but from 1992.

Amiga OS 3.2 comes with datatypes for modern formats like Jpeg and PNG files. Oliver Roberts’ WarpDT datatypes provide support for Photoshop PSD files and Google’s WebP. Datatypes exist for Microsoft Word, Canon CR2 Raw Photos, as well as more obscure formats like the C64 Koala screen format.

AmigaGuide

Commodore introduced the AmigaGuide hypertext format to provide developer documentation access. Unlike HTML, AmigaGuide is lightweight and designed for offline use. Images aren’t embedded in-line but can be linked to from within a document. Aminet AmigaGuides cover everything from Star Trek episodes to The Ultimate German Potato guide.

Using My Amiga For Personal Computing

During the week I used my Amiga for various things, but I don’t do personal computing every day. Amigas can do email but it’s not worth setting up just for a week. I normally write in Protext and WordWorth but spent most of the week getting to know Amiga OS 3.2’s TextEdit.

Web browsing on the Amiga is possible, but modern sites aren’t fun to use. IBrowse 2.5 last updated this April supports modern HTTPS and even some Javascript. NetSurf, while slow supports CSS and modern JS.

There are also things I did on Amiga OS 3.9 that I haven’t got round to setting up yet. For example, I normally use Stunnel, ZNC and Bitlbee to access Telegram, Slack and Mastodon. I use Newscoaster to catch up on public and private Usenet servers. I enjoy playing with Vista and Lightwave. I fix up photos with ImageFX, Photogenics and Art Effect. I even made an anim version of the Bad Apple Touhou video solely using the Amiga.

I spent the week off Secure Scuttle Butt as I use a Windows-based client. I didn’t have time beforehand to set up anything more portable. In the week I modelled COVID stats with Turbo Calc, listened to mods with EaglePlayer and BBC Radio 6 Music with Amiga AMP.

I use a Creative BT-W2 USB-Bluetooth soundcard with a bluetooth speaker on my Thinkpad. It works well as a replacement for the Thinkpad's terrible speakers. I hooked it up to the Amiga and modtunes started playing on the speaker. My neighbours may never forgive me.

I’ve toyed with ST Micro’s discovery boards to build retargetable sound support for the ZX20. I plugged an STM32F407 board running some USB soundcard code into the Amiga and it worked first time. I want to make the STM32 available to the ZX20 as a kind of media player/DSP/co-processor. If it works on the ZX20 it’ll probably work on the Amiga too.

I use the Roadshow TCP/IP stack to access my network and the Internet. Lots of older Amiga software uses the serial.device for serial links. Telser creates a fake serial device that works over IP. I can point it at any network destination and connect to BBSes with old-school clients. It also opened up the possibility to do something way cooler.

I spent most of Saturday trying to get CAT control working with a Yaesu FT-897d radio. While I did eventually succeed, background RF noise made it impossible to decode 2m APRS broadcasts. I fell back to WebSDRs on a Windows 10 PC and routed the audio to a Direwolf audio modem via a Virtual Cable. I configured AmiCom to use Direwolf as a KISS TNC over the network via telser and dialed in. The screenshot above shows decodes of APRS traffic around Cheshire, North England.

I also tried sending SSTV on 2M from the Amiga via af_mksstv, but I only had a phone to hand for the decode. I doubt anyone picked it up given RF noise levels. If you did, I’d love to see your decode!

Although possible, most modern activities are quicker on modern computers. The Amiga is capable of a lot and there is software for almost everything. Amiga software holds your hands less, and often involves more steps. Some activities involve waiting times that just don’t exist on modern systems. On the plus side, Amiga software rarely features telemetry. Spying on users takes up cycles, and they'd notice.

Of course I played games on the Amiga. Yes, I can play doom full-screen at full-speed but I can do that on a PC. I prefer being insulted by Archer Maclean’s Pool, doing mad jumps in Stunt Car Racer and blowing up Worms. It’s not all old games either.

This year has seen AGA remakes of Turrican 2, Supercars 2, and the recently released Turbo Sprint. Amiga 500 owners aren’t left behind. There is a new Robocop arcade port in the works and original games like Wrong Way Driver and Super Delivery Boy. Dread is an upcoming unaccelerated Amiga 500 Doom-like. That’s right, full speed on an unaccelerated Amiga 500. You can watch it in action on the video above from 25 minutes in.

Yes I can listen to Internet Radio on a Bluetooth speaker from my Amiga. Yes that does feel cool in a nerdy way, but it’s not a reason to have one. Nostalgia has a strong pull but Amiga OS 3.2 isn't nostalgic, it’s new. The main reason to use an Amiga in 2021 is the same as it was in 1985 - Creativity.

The iPad was the first successful consumption-oriented mass-market computing device. Yes you can create on an iPad now, but as it was initially designed for consumption, not creation. The success of the iPad led to consumption-oriented design patterns being added to modern systems.

From the beginning the Amiga was designed for creativity. It permeates through the Operating System. There are applications for everything. 36 Years after it arrived, the Amiga still excels at pixel art, music and 3D graphics. The lack of always-connected design reduces distraction. The multi-tasking OS keeps things usable.

Personal computing on an Amiga is intentional, not passive. There is no doomscrolling. No pop-up distractions. No recommended content from carefully selected partners. You turn on, do what interests you, then switch it off. I have a similar experience with Mac System 7. Of course the fastest 68k Mac is an Amiga.

Things You May Have Missed, Amiga Edition

In this video Amigalove’s Intric8 walks through his amazing Tron art piece made in Deluxe Paint III, step-by-step. If you’d like to (re)learn how to make your own pixel art, Pixel Vixen’s YouTube channel features Deluxe Paint Tutorials alongside her own art.

If you’re more into 3D, then the Amiga Raytracing Society has a 50 part Lightwave Tutorial. Lightwave was used extensively in TV series like Babylon 5 and the 90s Robocop TV show. It was also popular in cinema, being used in films like the original Jurassic Park, Casper and Demolition Man movies.

Hoffman’s DJs protracker mods using two Amigas and PT-1210 in his Unstable Radio sets. Bizzy B Science’s OctaMED Tutorial playlist will have you dropping some serious Drum ‘n’ Bass in no time at all.

PJ Hutchison’s site has some brilliant programming tutorials, while Weiju Wu’s Amiga Programming in C playlist is definitely worth watching. The mother of all Amiga programming tutorials has to be Photon of Scoopex’s Amiga Hardware Programming which takes you through classic demo coding from start to finish.

ed(1)conf spotted this old page about an ATI Ascii graphics accelerator for playing Nethack. I can dream.

I know there are better Amiga demos with better music out there but for a lot of people Jesus On E’s stands out, so I thought I’d end with it. To quote famous 18th century writer Samuel Johnson:

When a man is tired of Amigas, he is tired of life.

Ok, maybe he was talking about London. But if he had an Amiga I’m pretty sure he’d have said something vaguely similar. I’ll be in all good inboxes next month with more Tales From The Dork Web. If you’d like it in yours, you can sign up below.